The biking leg of triathlons was Jill Walsh’s least favorite aspect of the event, which may surprise some given the name she has since made for herself in the sport of paracycling. The 53-year-old former runner turned triathlete became one of the 24 members of the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team, who competed at the September 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Among Walsh’s paracycling career highlights, prior to being named to Team USA, are a silver medal in the T2 road race and bronze in the T2 time trial at the 2014 UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Para-cycling Road World Championships in Greenville, South Carolina; a gold medal in the T2 road race and a silver in the T2 time trial at the 2015 UCI Paracycling Road World Championships in Nottwil, Switzerland; and a gold medal in the T1-T2 mixed-that is, men and women racing against each other-time trial at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, Canada. This is particularly impressive since she only started competing in 2014. (Author’s note: The T1 class is for athletes with severe locomotive dysfunctions and insufficient balance to use a regular bicycle. The T2 class is for cyclists with more moderate loss of stability and function compared to T1. Athletes in both classes use tricycles and include people with a variety of disabilities.)
Facts From the National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease in which the myelin—the sheath surrounding nerve fibers—in the central nervous system is damaged and interferes with the transmission of nerve signals between the brain and spinal cord and other parts of the body. While the exact etiology of the disease is unknown, scientists believe it is caused by the interaction of immunologic, environmental, infectious, and genetic factors. The average person in the United States has a 0.1 percent chance of developing MS. Two to three times more women than men are diagnosed with MS, and patients are most often diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. The disease is more common in Caucasians of northern European ancestry and in areas farther from the equator. Among the most common symptoms are difficulties with gait, fatigue, numbness or tingling, dizziness and vertigo, and pain. For more information, visit www.NationalMSSociety.org.
The retired New York State trooper has always been very active. It was in 2010, while training for her first half Ironman, that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Walsh says she experienced persistent vertigo and dizziness and sought care from her physician. Several months and an MRI later, she received the life-changing diagnosis. “I still have bouts of [vertigo and dizziness] now,” she says. “It comes and goes. If I get really hot it flares up. Cold triggers me, too.”
Walsh says, in hindsight, some of the signs were there, such as the numbness in her foot that persisted for about a month, the more-than-normal fatigue, and heat sensitivity that she attributed to over-training. “It made sense when I pieced the other things together,” she says.
Rolling With the Changes
Rather than slowing down after the diagnosis, Walsh’s activity level has increased over the last several years, although she makes accommodations as she adapts to the changes her body is going through.
For example, in July 2012 Walsh completed her first full-length Ironman, the Lake Placid Ironman, New York, using an AFO on her left leg-a Kinetic Research Noodle for cycling and an Allard BlueROCKER® for running-due to MS-related foot drop. It was two years after her diagnosis and seven months after a relapse that severely limited her ability to walk for a month-yet she had set a goal and was determined to accomplish it. Walsh crossed the finish line after 16 hours and 16 minutes, to the cheers of a crowd of well-wishers. The following year, she took third place in the Accenture Challenged Athletes National Championship triathlon in New York, and second place in the USA Paratriathlon National Championship in Austin, Texas. That October she participated in the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Ride, a 620-mile ride from San Francisco to San Diego.